Final Project- The movement of the Manichaean tradition along the Silk Road

Manichaeism is the epitome of the Silk Road experience. Essentially, it is a Gnostic dualist religion, founded by the prophet Mani in Sassanid Iran, who preached the eternal cosmic battle of good and evil forces. The unique feature of this so-called ‘Silk Road tradition’ is its embracement of Adam, Zoroaster, the Buddha and Jesus as valid prophets preaching the same eternal truth as Mani. Along with recognizing these personages, Manichaeism further recognizes elements of other indigenous cultures, such as Hindu gods and Persian deities in some regions along the Silk Road. The Manichaean tradition’s inclusive outlook is one of the main factors which enabled its transmittance along the Silk Road, and subsequently it’s flourishing as well.  The tradition foremost embodied the essential characteristics of the Silk Road itself; The religion developed almost as an exchange of ideas between the Eastern and Western cultures, culminating in an institutionalized religion. Every new region it spread to, the Manichaean tradition incorporated some aspect of the region’s religious practices or doctrine into its own, e.g. In China, the Manichaean veneration of the Buddha as a previous incarnation of the prophet Mani. The growth of the Manichaean tradition paralleled the growth of the Silk Road, starting out as a small Gnostic sectarian tradition with the advent of the Silk Road in Eurasia, reaching the peak of its influence at the height of the prominence of the Silk Road and finally declining and diminishing with the Silk Road itself. This research project is going to address the factors underlying the transmission of Manichaeism along the Silk Road, of how such a small Gnostic sect came to rival the Christian and Buddhist tradition at the height of its prominence along the Silk Road. The Manichaean pluralistic belief, inclusive of Christian Buddhist, Zoroastrian and indigenous doctrine, enabled and even catalyzed the spread of this tradition along the Silk Road, by providing a strong appeal to the locals, encouraging  its followers to become more broad-minded and adapting a religiously tolerant outlook and finally, by presenting its doctrine as the complete and unadulterated  truth.

One of the most significant ways in which the Manichaean pluralistic doctrine influenced the growth of the religious movement along the Silk Road from the Persian Empire all the way to China is through its strong appeal to the locals. The prophet Mani’s message was universalistic by nature, addressing all segments of the population. His teachings did not entail any discriminatory practices, making no distinction between the rich and the poor, the highly educated and the illiterate, different ethnic backgrounds etc. The core tenets of Mani’s teachings uses simple concepts such as the embodiment of light and darkness by good and evil forces, and does not require any sophisticated learning for its most basic comprehension. This egalitarian nature of Manichaeism played a significant role in attracting followers as the oppressed especially viewed this movement as a respite from the oppressive societies they were compelled to live in. However the majority of the concepts introduced by Mani were not incredibly innovative or completely new from the dominant religious ideologies of the time. His concepts of salvation and damnation, eschatological beliefs of the end of time, and of the ‘coming’ of a Messiah are all borrowed concepts from the preceding monotheistic traditions. Although in Manichean belief, there is no outright acknowledgement of a Divinity which is all-encompassing, there is a strong sense of belief in the god of light, which shows that Mani to an extent advocated a monotheistic belief. The common concepts found in Manichaeism did not hinder its growth, rather it drew people’s attention and provided them with a sense of familiarity. Manichaeism also drew attention from the general populace due to the prophet Mani’s claim that he had superseded the previous prophets of the region’s dominant traditions, namely Zoroaster, the Buddha and Jesus. Such a claim was essentially able to gain a following due to the rapid changes which were taking place in the regions due to the implementation and utilization of the Silk Road. The Silk Road not only radically changed the economic structures of the regions along its path, these changes also had substantial, far-reaching consequences on the social structures as well. Merchants gained a much higher prominence in society as there was a great increase in mercantile wealth with the advent of the Silk Road while the warrior classes’ influence and power greatly diminished. Such precarious times proved to be opportunistic for Mani as the people were accepting of the changes that were affecting their lives. Adapting to a new religious affiliation may have seemed viable at such a time as it complemented the transformative processes the social institutions were undergoing in the Silk Road regions.

In addition to appealing to the locals, Manichaean pluralistic belief enabled the tradition to travel along the Silk Road due to the religious toleration it was promoting among its followers. Mani’s inclusive outlook did not denounce any tradition which prevailed in the regions Manichaeism was being adopted in, and in fact Mani was placing very little emphasis in distinguishing between ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ religious institutions. His whole-hearted embracement of Adam, Zoroaster, Buddha and Jesus enabled his followers to regard the other prevailing traditions namely Buddhism, Islam, Zoroastrianism and Christianity as valid religious institutions as well. The central figure of Jesus in Manichaean doctrine proved crucial in the adaptation and endurance of this tradition at certain places and at certain points in time. Christianity was a major force in the Silk Road at the time of Manichaeism’s inception, especially in the western domains all the way through to the Central Asian regions. Even though Christians may not have been the outright targeted population for conversion by Mani, he was well aware that his followers were only going to thrive and gain favour through the veneration of a common figure as their co-religionists. This particular veneration of Jesus also helped the Manichean community living along the South China Coast safeguard their religious practices from persecution, by being identified as Christians and thus gaining the approval of the local Chinese authorities. Other than incorporating the symbols and doctrine of dominant religious traditions, Manichaeism also incorporated the symbols and deities of indigenous traditions, in particular the Hindu deity Ganesha into its fold, demonstrated by the image available in the article, Manichaean art and calligraphy by Hans-Joachim Klimkeit. Mani was allegedly claiming to be the reincarnation of the Buddha, Lord Krishna, Zoroaster and Jesus depending on the context in which he was carrying out his preachings. Such strategic claims fostered a spirit of toleration among the Manicheans and the other religious communities and this particular feature greatly assisted them in gaining the approval of authorities to practice in different regions along the Silk Road.

The final key feature of the Manichaean pluralistic belief which facilitated the rapid growth of Manichaeism along the Silk Road was the presentation of the Manichaean doctrine as the complete and unadulterated truth. One of the features Mani consistently stressed on was that the religious traditions preceding Manichaeism were all various forms of the same truth. However, Mani preached that with the advent of his teachings, the preceding religions had become defunct and obsolete and Manichaeism was in fact presenting the most complete truth to humanity. This particular claim made by Mani paralleled one of the primary outcomes of the advent of the Silk Road, which is that all previous trading means had become defunct due to the new system of trading introduced by the Silk Road. The people living along the Silk Road were quite readily accepting of the new methods of exchange which were taking place and as a consequence were accepting new ways of doing things in general. Mani did not preach that his religious tradition was the only way of attaining salvation, he simply laid it out as the best, most efficient way of attaining it. Such a feature proved to fare quite prominently in the cultures Mani was addressing as the people of these regions at the time were looking for the most efficient means of conducting their affairs. The Silk Road for example, was the most efficient means of trading so this concept of Manichaeism being the most efficient means of attaining salvation made it greatly appealing thus drawing in a large number of locals. However, Mani’s truth was not significantly different from the truths professed by the prophets of the preceding religions. He professed a belief in good and evil and the ultimate triumph of good over evil. Mani professed a belief in the saving grace of God, in sin and redemption. And finally he professed a belief in the end of time when a promise Messiah will come to save the earth from destruction. Such beliefs were not a complete innovation of Mani’s, they were borrowed mainly from the monotheistic beliefs of Christianity. His views, far from opposing the Christian doctrine were in fact complementary to the Christian beliefs, as they simply added a new dimension to it. Mani’s claims therefore, attracted a substantial following who entrusted their faith in this relatively new syncretistic movement in various cultural regions along the Silk Road.

It can be concluded that the Manichaean pluralistic doctrine enabled the spread of the tradition along the Silk Road in three main ways, by appealing to the local needs, by promoting religious toleration and finally by presenting itself as the complete and unadulterated truth to humanity. Even though at the height of its influence and power, Manichaeism even managed to rival the Catholic Church, the religious institution has not persisted till the present day and is now believed to be extinct. So the essential question one might ask is, how did this come to be? Manichaeism barely survived the collapse of the Silk Road, losing followers mainly through persecution and by conversion to other faiths. As the Silk Road was superseded by sea routes as a more efficient trading means, Manichaeism as a religious institution gave in as well, unable to develop a method of sustaining itself without the Silk Road. The parallel rise and fall of the Silk Route and the Manichean religious institution is a vivid example of the interdependence of social and economic institutions and can be strongly likened to the interdependence of institutions in the post-modern world today in which globalization has made the social and cultural institutions of the world increasingly more dependent on the capitalist economic system.


Blog # 9- The ethics of collecting and preserving cultural property

The two articles, Unesco’s Rehabilitation of Afghanistan’s Cultural heritage: Mandate and Recent Activities by Christian Manhart and Afghan Cultural Heritage and International Law: The case of the Buddhas of Bamiyan by Francesco Francioni and Federico Lenzerini both deal with the aftermath of the incident of the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas in March of 2001 by the Taliban regime in Afghanistan in defiance against the UN’s as well as other nation states’ appeals to preserve them. Although both these articles focus on two very different aspects derived from the same incident, which is the destruction of the invaluable Buddhas, they both express significant concern over the preservation of the rich pre-Islamic cultural heritage of Afghanistan.

The first article by Manhart explicitly deals with the United Nation’s efforts at preserving the pre-Islamic relics mainly from the Buddhist era in Afghanistan through their sister concern, UNESCO. UNESCO’s activities mainly involve the renovation and revitalization of the Kabul Museum which houses many of these ancient invaluable relics. They have invested a significant amount of funds in restoring the dilapidated museum, training curators on handling the artefacts, restoring and appropriately housing the artefacts in the museum etc. In addition, UNESCO has also initiated preservation projects of the ancient cave-sites of Bamiyan, Jam and Herat by enacting safe protection measures from the harsh weather of Afghanistan. Also, other nations such as the Netherlands, the United States, France etc. have all made significant donations to the UNESCO efforts, demonstrating the huge international concern over Afghanistan’s cultural heritage.

The second article by Francioni and Lenzerini deals with the legal aspects of the incident of the deliberate destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan by the Taliban government. The authors quite clearly feel quite strongly about the incident, explicitly voicing their opinion that the incident should not go unpunished even going as far as to say that the destruction of the Buddhas were a ‘crime against the all of humankind’.  They bring to light certain passages of the civil code set by the United Nations, concerning the destruction of cultural and religious property, implying that the Talibans had perpetrated a crime considerable enough to be called into question by the United Nations tribunal. The authors went to great lengths to justify their strong condemnation of the incident taking it as far as calling the incident, ‘an attack on the minority religions’ right to practice’.  Although, the article in question was clouded by the authors’ very one-sided and biased opinion and views, they do manage to make some very good points on the issue. They encourage the international community to take notice of the fact that no nation or power should have the right to destroy as they please heritage which universally applies to everyone. The Buddhas of Bamiyan were not simply Afghanistan’s cultural heritage they were the heritage of the cultural exchange which occurred in that region during the peak of the Silk Road’s relevance. The authors brought to light that it was simply not ok for ruling parties to decide to destroy historical ancient monuments which simply do not fit their religious principles. There should be a certain degree of respect for other cultures, especially if they were cultures which preceded their own in the region.

Blog # 8 – Topics in the Study of Islam in contemporary Central Asia and Afghanistan

The articles, Shaping an Islamic Identity, Feminism, the Taliban and the Politics of Counter-Insurgency, The Clash of Ignorance deal with three very crucial issues central to the understanding of contemporary Islamic society. The first article, Shaping an Islamic Identity by T. Jeremy Gunn, addresses the crucial issue of politically preserving Islamic ideals and values in the emerging secular post communist societies in the Muslim majority Central Asian countries of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. In the second article, Feminism, the Taliban and the Politics of Counter-Insurgency, Saba Mahmood and Charles Hirschkind critically analyze the effectiveness or the lack of it of the Los Angeles based organization, Feminist Majority in supporting their undying cause of liberating Afghani women from the oppressive regulations enforced on them by the Taliban.  Finally in the third article, The Clash of Ignorance, Edward Said critically refutes Samuel Huntington’s article, Clash of Civilizations? who suggests an inevitable showdown between the West and the Muslim world due to their irreconcilable differences.


Gunn provides an astute account of the methods employed by the post Communist Central Asian governments in order to incorporate Islamic values into their administration as part of a greater initiative to revive Islamic values in the mainstream cultures. Rather than praising this broad initiative, Gunn in fact, points out the numerous flaws in the governments’ “Islamic” policies, e.g. the government of Uzbekistan decided to encourage the revival of Madrasahs and Islamic learning centers, yet if any of them were not properly registered with the government, the Imams of the particular institutions were at risk of being persecuted and imprisoned. The underlying message Gunn was trying to voice through his article, was that although the initiative may in fact be genuine and well-intentioned, the way in which the governments’ are implementing it is proving to be ineffective in fulfilling their main objective of reviving Islamic zeal and enthusiasm among the mass population of Central Asia. If the government were to truly meet their goals, they would have to take a less zealous and more tolerant stance through the implementation of their Islamic policies.


Saba Mahmood and Charles Hirschkind analyze the effectiveness or lack of it of the Los Angeles based organization, Feminist Majority in furthering their cause of liberating destitute and oppressed Afghani women from the Taliban’s oppressive society. Although the article initially commences by highlighting the many positive changes that the organization was able to bring about, e.g. by bringing together activists from all sectors of society to work for one particular cause, the article’s main point was to expose the inadequacies in the way in which the organization functions. The authors clearly wanted to express that if Feminist Majority were really going to bring about significant change in the lives of the Afghani women, they desperately needed to modify their game plan, by focusing less on liberating the women from the restrictions on their appearance, to applying their focus and attention on more detrimental social ills such as their inaccessibility to proper healthcare and education. Also, the authors expressed the need for Feminist Majority to stop antagonizing the Taliban society as being “evil” and recognize the need for major social development in the society as a whole.


Finally, in the last article, Edward Said, produces a very strong refutation of Samuel Huntington’s 1993 article, Class of Civilizations? Said argued that contrary to what Huntington proposed, the division of the world into two main camps, the West and the Muslim world, is highly problematic if one were to look at it from a cultural perspective. Said felt that Huntington failed to take into account when constructing his elaborate highly antagonist theory, the existence of a broad range of cultures and languages within the different nations which take precedence over the religious life of the state, or at least greatly influence its religious life. In short, Said dismissed Huntington’s essay as being ignorant and lacking a basis on adequate convincing factual evidence which rather than easing tensions between the two so called camps, only seemed to endorse and encourage further hate and antagonism.

Blog entry #7- Cosmopolitan Chang’an

The three articles, Missiological Reflections on Nestorian Christianity in China during the Tang Dynasty by David Bundy, Daily Life in the Capital by Valerie Hansen, and Golden Peaches of Samarkand by Edward Schafer are all concerned with the influence of foreigners on the Chinese Culture, on the city of Chang’an in particular, during the Tang period in the late eighth and early ninth centuries.


The first article deals with the presence of Nestorian Christians in Tang China. Nestorian Christianity existed and prospered to an extent in China in the Tang dynasty. It relied heavily on the teachings of its monks and Nestorian Christian life centered on the monasteries’ activities. The dissolution of the Nestorian monasteries so that the monks could return to ordinary lay life resulted in a rapid decline and breakdown of Nestorian Christianity in China, ultimately resulting in its complete obliteration. The Nestorian Christians in China had accomplished much, however they failed to have a very profound impact in China and not much of a following compared to Buddhism and Manichaeism. Another reason for decline was its lack of contact with Mesopotamia, present day Baghdad. It is certain that Nestorian Christianity did not intend to mass convert people to their religion, nor were they making any claims of superiority over the other traditions. They simply wanted to establish themselves and adhere to their own practices. The Nestorians left Mesopotamia and travelled East most likely because of being alienated by the growing Islamic presence, which sidelined the other pre-existing traditions in the region.


The second article, Daily life in the Capital, focuses on the commercial as well as cultural exchanges that occurred in Chang’an, a major city in the Tang dynasty. The author of the article initially explains the layout of the city, and then moves onto discuss the two major features of the city, the trade activities by its merchants, and it’s functioning as the Tang government’s central examination center. By highlighting the city’s second important feature, Hansen recounts the mythical story of Li Wa, the famed prostitute who lured the bright young scholar who had come to Chang’an in order to sit for his central examinations in the city. Hansen recounts that the young scholar had experienced tragedy because of Li Wa but in the end, he was able to regain his pride and honour as well as Li Wa. This article as opposed to Bundy’s is more personal and conveys to the reader a sense of what it was actually like living in Chang’an at the time. However, the article’s main drawback is its lack of coverage on the main issue of foreign presence and influence in Tang China.


The third article, Golden Peaches of Samarkand focuses on the broad documenting of all the foreign contact experienced by the Chinese in the city of Chang’an during the Tang period through mainly commercial trade. The foreign contact ranges from the Tang Chinese’s trade with the Malayan Indians to Persians to the Japanese.  The author of this article mainly details the attitude of the Chinese faced by foreigners entering China, either by land or by sea. Although it was generally considered to be fashionable at the time to embrace foreign culture in China, such as by imitating Western styles of clothing, decorating and such, a lot of the time, foreigners were met with considerable harshness by the Chinese. For instance, it is mentioned that Chinese officials forbade foreign Uighur men from taking local Chinese women as their wives and procreating with them. Although this is a very extreme scenario, it effectively highlights the general attitude of the Chinese in regard to the acceptance of foreigners entering and living in Chinese society during the Tang era, which was very hostile indeed.


All three articles, bring to light a crucial aspect of foreign influence on the Chinese, that none of the influence was able to essentially prosper in the Chinese society. The Chinese, irregardless of their fashioning after foreign styles, proved to have a high level of social solidarity among them. Their society was so deeply entrenched in their own unique rich and complex cultural heritage that it was quite difficult for influences from other cultures to penetrate it. Hence, the highly unique and individual characteristic of Chinese cultural heritage is owed to the fact that it reflected such little influence from other cultures.

blog #6- sketches from the Dunhuang cave-sites


The two articles, Formulas of creativity: Artist’s sketches and techniques of copying at Dunhuang by Sarah Fraser and Buddhist cave-temples and the Cao family by Ma Shicheng both focus on the documents discovered at the 5 major cave-sites in Dunhuang, namely Mogao Ku, and their implications in our understanding of premodern artistic techniques. The excavations from the Dunhuang cave-sites are the earliest known preliminary sketches by artists ever discovered so thereby these sketches allow us to gain an insight into the methods undertaken by artists in preparation for their works of art, which in this case range from wall murals to religious artwork such as statues of the Buddha and accompanying bodhisattvas. The artists’ preparatory work also varied greatly as while ceiling murals were preliminarily sketched out in miniature form, paintings on silk banners were sketched out in life-size form. Another important aspect of these excavations is that the preliminary sketches of the artists helped the archaeologists determine which of the items were taken arbitrarily over the centuries from its original site as it was highly common for the imperial powers, especially the British to claim ownership of their excavations at these cave-sites and take back to Britain especially in the early 20th century. For instance, archaeologists were able to identify a missing statue of the Buddha in one of the Cave-shrines by consulting the sketches. Conclusively, although the artists’ sketches found in the Dunhuang cave-sites are not valued artwork in their own right, their true value lies in their conveyance of subtle characteristics of the final art pieces as well as the artistic techniques employed at the time by the artists at Dunhuang.

Blog #5- the Sogdians

Each of the three articles, The Merchant Empire of the Sogdians, Sogdians in Northwest China, and The Sogdians in their Homeland highlight uniquely different aspects of the people of Sogdiana. While the first article focuses on the mercantile aspirations of the Sogdians and the subsequent flourishing of their mercantile culture, the second and third articles center on the activities and behaviour of the Sogdian community abroad in Northwest China and at home in Sogdiana respectively. Most of what is known to present-day historians of the people of Sogdiana comes from Chinese sources from the Tang and Sui period in which time Sogdiana was under Chinese authority. In addition much has been discovered of the daily lives, beliefs and rituals of the Sogdians from wall murals discovered at major Sogdian archaeological sites. The depiction of the Sogdians based on these sources is one of a community of people so uniquely different and much unlike any in the ancient world.


The first striking characteristic of the people of Sogdiana in comparison to their contemporaries is the high rank and value they placed on the merchant class in their social hierarchy. While most other cultures of the time were regarding the religious scholars and warriors as the highest and most respected classes in society and marginalizing the merchants, the Sogdians were doing just the contrary. Commercial enterprise and trade were of paramount importance and a consequence of upholding this precept was the accumulation of unprecedented wealth and prosperity for the Sogdians. The Sogdian precept allowed them to prosper for a number of reasons. Firstly, the de-emphasis on military training meant that the Sogdians hardly ever engaged in war with other people. Their patrons and rulers, alternating between the Turks and the Chinese, ruled over the Sogdians by facilitating and encouraging their commercial activities and by providing them with a lot of personal freedom. This is because the Sogdians’ rulers hardly recognized them as a military threat due to their lack of interest in the art of war.


Another unique characteristic of the Sogdian people was their ability to integrate and thrive in foreign lands, namely the Northwest region of China. According to Chinese sources a number of high-ranking families of the region were of Sogdian descent with very distinct Sogdian physical features. This form of trans-migration and social integration of a people in foreign cultures was extremely rare as they were usually ethnically closed and hostile to unfamiliar faces. However, the Sogdians not only were able to integrate, they were also able to secure themselves wealth and prosperity in these foreign lands as they occupied high-ranking positions in the administration of the Chinese empire. In addition to this, another unique trait of the Sogdian people which set them apart from all other communities was the flexibility of their religion.


The Sogdians were officially Zoroastrian, like their neighbouring Sassanian Persian contemporaries. However, unlike the Sassanians, the Sogdians were much less rigid and strict in their religious practice and beliefs, thus allowing them the advantage of creating more prosperous relationships with people from more influential cultures. The Sogdians were known to integrate the deities of traditions from other cultures into their own, which include deities from the Hindu tradition as well ancient Mesopotamian deities, resulting in a highly syncretic form of Zoroastrian practice. This practice enabled the Sogdians to foster better relations with the people of these other traditions, thereby enabling them to prosper in their trade activities.


Conclusively, the Sogdians were a shrewd economically driven people who were able to secure prosperity for themselves through the flexibility and adaptability of both their cultural and religious values. They very much resemble our modern Capitalist society which centers on economic activity and in which successful businessmen are granted the highest regard and respect in society.

Blog # 4 – Buddhist pilgrim on the Silk Road

The article, Buddhist Pilgrim on the Silk Road, chapters 1 to 4 by Sally Hoover Wriggins documents the physical journey of the Chinese Buddhist monk, Xuanzhang from China to India in his spiritual quest to discover the true teachings of the Buddha in the land of his origin in mid seventh century CE.  Irrespective of the monk’s spiritual objective which motivated his travels, Xuanzhang’s account of the journey proves to be an indispensable tool to contemporary historians in studying the Silk Roads.

Xuanzhang’s main motivation in journeying to India was to seek the “Truth”, or in order words, the true, unadulterated teachings of Shakyamuni, as he was discontent with the Buddhist principles being preached and practiced in China. This is a testimony to the argument I made in the short paper on Michel Strickmann’s article, that the Buddhist tradition which had developed in China was so different from the tradition practiced in India that it can easily be considered its own separate entity. However, in Wriggins’ article, the differences are outlined in more specific terms than in Strickmann’s article, as Wriggins distinguishes the tradition practiced by Xuanzhang in China as Mahayana Buddhism from the Indian Buddhist tradition which is largely Hinayana Buddhism. These two Buddhist schools of thought were significantly different in their beliefs and practices, but Xuanzhang was seeking a truth which was bigger and more universal than these two traditions, he was seeking out Shakyamuni himself.

Xuanzhang’s account of the centers of trade on the Silk Road he stops at on his journey to India, ranging from Turfan to Kashmir proves to be a vital historical record of those Silk Road destinations. His detailed descriptions of the people, the environment and the overall culture prevalent at the places such as Samarkand allows historians to study these ancient historically important centers and more than simply being able to study them as independent entities, historians are able to use Xuanzhang’s personal account of his first-hand experience in these places to identify the exchange which took place which ultimately led to the flourishing of the Silk Roads.

There is a great emphasis by Wriggins on the extraordinariness of such a feat by a single man who spent most of his life up to the point of his departure from China in religious training. The author of the article even refers to the journey as one which should have been in all respects, an “impossible” one. By doing so, Wriggins applies holy qualities to the monk, implying perfection in his character. This however, is bias on the author’s part as it is evident that her reverence and admiration for Xuanzhang prevents her from providing a more objective account of the monk’s travels.

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